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How to Discuss Divorce with Children

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Relational Problems » Featured Article

By: Elana Chasser, LCSW

Elana Chasser, LCSW

The conversation in which you tell your children that you are getting a divorce will be one they never forget. It is a moment that changes lives forever. That you and your spouse are breaking up is the new reality. How you speak to your children and address their emotional needs through all stages of your divorce gives you a lot of power to cushion the emotional impact that this stormy time has on them for the rest of their lives.

Human beings need to feel a sense of safety, security and love. Children must believe they are important and belong in the world, and this belief is created at home with their parents. Divorce can undermine that. "Home” and "family” as they know it are changing. Rocking the safety boat can be emotionally devastating for them but doesn't have to be. You have enormous influence on how your child/children go through the storm and how they emerge from it. The continuity of safety, security and love, critical for children, begins by creating and encouraging a space for them to express what may be intense and difficult feelings. Additionally, modeling how you handle your feelings, especially during a crisis, is an opportunity to equip them with a great life tool.

Creating an atmosphere of open communication between parents and children affirms they can trust you. Secrets and "hidden knowledge” (things children pick up on without anyone telling them directly) cause unnecessary anxiety and leave room for their imaginations to create stories much worse than what is "hidden.” Even children as young as one year sense changes in the home and in the relationship between their parents. It is best to tell them about the divorce as soon as you know it is inevitable and before any separation or changes in the living situation or school take place.

Guidelines on Discussing Your Divorce with Your Children

1. Be together and undisturbed. Both parents should be present when possible. Be calm, confident and clear. It is best to discuss with your spouse ahead of time what you will say and stay consistent with that. Although you and your spouse may be experiencing difficulty with each other, it is very important to keep anger and tension out of this discussion. Refrain from blaming each other. Your children will be reading your cues, and now is the time to let them know that you are each here for them. Find a quiet time when the TV is off and the phone will not disturb you. Sit facing the children and offer security by touching them or holding their hands, especially younger children. If both parents are unable to be present, speak to your children alone in the same manner as above. Be true and honest in explaining why the other parent is not present. Refrain from speaking negatively or with anger about the parent who is not present.

2. Talk to all of your children at the same time. If you have more than one child, it is best to have this conversation with all of them together. Talking to one and then telling him or her not to talk with the others until you do puts additional pressure and anxiety on that child. Over time you will need to talk with your children individually, but for this initial discussion it is important to share the information while they are all together. The message is that this decision affects everyone in the family, and each child is important enough to be a part of this discussion.

3. Be honest. Tell the truth and don't withhold basic information. Children are highly perceptive and feel safer when they know and understand what is happening to them. Give appropriate information based on the children's ages. Answer their questions without telling them about the adult issues between you and your spouse. Examples of what not to share include whether the desire for the divorce is one-sided or personal details of what occurred to prompt the divorce. Specifics are usually adult information. Tell your inquisitive child that you welcome his or her questions but some information is about adult problems that adults work out on their own.

4. Be positive. Children, especially younger ones, will pick up on emotional cues from you. While being true to the reality and pain of the breakup, offer hope and positivity. Suggest ways this change will bring good to their lives, but only if they are true. Do not attempt to minimize the enormity of their or your emotions about the divorce. If it feels true and right to you, highlight changes that are or may be positive.

5. Tell your children you love them and always will. Children often fear that because parents stop loving each other the parents will stop loving them too. They are experiencing how anger and sometimes fighting lead to a breakup, and this may — particularly for younger children — translate into a fear of their own anger and the power it may have to cause a breakup with you! Tell your children that you love them and will always love them, no matter what! Let them know that you are happy they are in your lives and that parents don't stop loving their children, even when a parent doesn't live with them.

6. Reassure children they are not to blame. It is common for children to think that a parents' divorce is due to something they (the children) did or didn't do. As a way of trying to make sense of what is happening, the children's most immediate measure is their own behavior and a false sense of power that they might have been able to prevent their parents from breaking up. Reassure your children repeatedly that they are not the cause of the divorce and that the irreconcilable differences are between you and your partner. Repeat that Mom and Dad are getting a divorce because of problems between themselves. You will need to reassure them many times to alleviate any doubts they have about being at fault.

7. Be respectful of the other parent. Be prepared for this conversation to be very difficult. Your feelings will likely be very charged, and it will be challenging to present this news to your children without blaming each other. Children are easily burdened with confusion and conflict around which parent they should be loyal to, despite wanting and needing them both. If your children ask you why you are getting divorced, it is crucial to be honest and respectful of each other and still refrain from sharing information that is for adults only. Tell them there are grown-up issues that you will not talk about. Be aware of your nonverbal communications also. Anger expressed by eye rolling, sighing, clenched teeth or making disapproving, critical sounds will be picked up by your children and send messages of who is to blame for the divorce. Be aware that your children need to love and be loved by both parents and holding back blame while being respectful of each other frees them to share their love and loyalties with both of you.

8. Be prepared to be patient. Children ask questions when they are ready to hear and learn. Asking for information helps them process what is happening. Expect that they may ask the same question again and again to make sense of what's happening in their world. Your patience is a vital ingredient in helping them sort this through. Children will continue to ask and process the information until it becomes properly digested in their emotional systems. You may find it painful or annoying, but try to encourage your children's need to ask questions. They are trying to adjust to and absorb life's new reality, just as you are. Asking questions is a child's instinctive way of seeking understanding. Questions are an important part of their healing too.

Handling Children's Reactions

Children react to and manage their feelings in different ways. Some are able to verbalize them, while others display them nonverbally. Some children don't show their emotions at all. You may see any of these reactions. Expect that they will feel a range of emotions including anger, sadness, confusion, fear, worry or even relief. Encourage them to share what they are feeling with you. Let them know you can handle whatever it is and will be there for them. Validate their concerns and feelings. Whatever they are experiencing is valid and understandable. Reassure them of this so they know you accept them and their feelings. You don't need to offer solutions to help them feel better. Listen. Encourage them to put their feelings into words. For example, "You look so sad right now. Do you know what is making you feel so sad?” Validating them might sound like, "I know you're feeling angry, and I understand why.”

Be prepared to answer logistical questions such as, "Are we moving? Who will I spend holidays with? When will I see you if you're living somewhere else?” You may not have answers to some of their questions yet, and that is okay. Be honest and reassure your children that you don't yet know but will tell them as soon as decisions are made.

If your child is managing this experience by withdrawing and is not willing to talk about it, communicate that whatever is in his or her heart and mind is okay and normal and that you are okay hearing about it. Offer that reassurance again and again. If and when the child decides to talk is up to him or her, but your invitation and reassurance will offer a safe environment to approach you when the child is ready.

It is important to inform your children's teachers about your divorce so they can be attuned to the children and any changes that may occur in school. Your children's emotional struggles may appear in academic performance or social/peer conflicts. Partner with the school in assisting them through this difficult time.

Healthy Children of Divorce

Even in the most difficult times, remind yourself this will pass. You will be okay. Change is movement. What is happening and all that you feel within it will not last forever. Children, especially younger ones, don't carry a broad sense of the future. This is an event in which you have the opportunity to teach them about getting through hard times and coming out intact on the other side. Consider the initial conversation of telling your children about your divorce as the first of many to come. If your own struggle is making it hard for you to manage being there for your children productively, seek professional help. Maintain open lines of communication with your children throughout and your children will emerge from the process healthier and bonded with you. Trust, love, comfort and the security of knowing they have a safe place to go that is you will be a gift for their lifetimes.

About the Author...

Elana Chasser is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in practice since 1993. She specializes in relationships, dating, divorce and post-divorce recovery. Ms. Chasser holds a private practice with offices in Brooklyn, NY and Merrick, Long Island.

Click here to contact or learn more about Elana Chasser

Last Update: 5/4/2013

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